Chin up! Chest out! March!

Left, Right, Left … Halt!

Salim, class 10, leading the parade

hose were the early years of Pakistan. The 1950s. Pakistan had not only emerged on the world map as an independent country but also, in 1948, had fought its first war with India over Kashmir. The war was short and inconclusive, but it infused a patriotic fervor all-around, and everyone seemed to be itching for a second round — and conquering Kashmir.

Patriotism can be infectious. Our high school, in Mansehra, like many others in the province, introduced military training for the students in class 7 and above. Both the school establishment and the students took up the training with great enthusiasm.

Soon, Raja Fazal Daad, a former army Havildar, appeared on the scene as the instructor. He proceeded to work on the young recruits with the passion of a zealot. Raja, as he was commonly known, was a man of medium height, solidly built, and packed with energy. He came to the school always dressed in a military-style uniform: grey ‘militia’ shirt, khaki shorts, a khaki kullah, and hobnailed boots. And he also carried a swagger stick.

Raja wouldn’t talk; he always shouted. His commands were heard all over the school: “Chin up! Chest out! Straighten your shoulders! March! Left, right, left…halt!” And so on it went most of the morning.

Raja recruited his ‘troops’ from among the students and organized them into three platoons, each headed by a platoon commander chosen for his bearing and the ability to shout out commands in a clear and loud voice. The louder and longer one shouted a command, the better.

Thus, a long command of “Attaaaaaaaain-shun!” by a platoon commander was met with a loud, synchronized thud of the boots of the platoon. Among the many rules, Raja reminded his ‘troops’ daily, one was:

“پاؤں اتنے زور سے مارو کہ زمین کا تختہ الٹ جاۓ
“Hit the ground so hard that the earth turns over.”​

We did our best to overturn the earth.

The school also decided to raise a band from among the students. The news sent a wave of excitement in the student body. Everyone wanted to join the band. It promised a rare break from the drudgery of schoolwork, and also, for some, an opportunity to explore their musical talents.

A former army bandmaster, Fazal-e-Elahi, was hired for the purpose. He decided his band should consist of side drums, bass drum, bugles, bagpipes, cymbals — the whole works — and proceeded to recruit and train the students for the band.

I wished to play the side drum and showed up for the selection along with other candidates. Fazal-e-Elahi lined us up, with our hands stretched forward, palms down and fingers open. He inspected each pair of hands as if inspecting our fingernails. One look at my hands and he declared me unfit. My fingers were too stubby, he declared.

My cousin, Salim, a couple of years senior to me, was selected as one of the drummers. How I envied him and cursed my stubby fingers!

Disappointed but not deterred, I turned up once again for selection, this time for bugles, my second choice. Fazl-e-Elahi lined up the candidates like before, and inspected the line, examining each candidate’s face. He rejected me again, saying my lips were too thick to blow a bugle.

I wished for Fazal-e-Elahi to fall in a ditch.

As a consolation, or because it did not require any specific physical attributes, Fazal-e-Elahi offered to enroll me for cymbals. But clapping those brass plates didn’t look manly to me. I declined the offer.

Later in life, whenever I saw a drummer or a trumpeter, on TV or in real life, I observed their fingers and lips to see how different they were from mine.

Headmaster Ghulam Rabbani Khan

Kilts were prescribed for the band uniform. Yes, kilts! Those knee-length, pleated skirts of check cloth worn by Scottish Highlanders. Having schoolboys playing drums and bagpipes was something unconventional in conservative Mansehra, but having them wear kilts was kind of revolutionary. But our headmaster, Ghulam Rabbani Khan, was an unorthodox man — and a bit eccentric. He approved the band uniform.

Interestingly, there wasn’t a peep from the town’s loudspeakers against turning boys into musicians and, worse, making them wear what looked like Western women’s dress. Perhaps, because the factory settings of the loudspeakers were different then, and there weren’t that many of them either.

While Raja worked on his “troops”, Fazal e Ilahi trained the band. And both their accomplishments were put on display in a parade, held weekly, that would march through the main bazaar and beyond.

Everyone looked forward to the weekly parade. It was an exciting event, both for the school and the town. Raja would turn up in a freshly starched uniform, the crest of his kullah flared and up. He would assemble his ‘troops’ in the schoolyard in angular U shape, each platoon forming one leg of the U, and standing in rows of three. While Raja ran the platoons through the initial drill routines, Fazal-e-Elahi would assemble his band in a separate corner of the yard, testing and tuning their instruments.

When all was set, Raja would call the ‘troops’ to order and shout out a final set of commands — actually, his commandments: “Remember three things!”, he would shout:

آگے سے کور، دایئں بایئں ڈریسنگ ، اور بازو کا جھولا

What it meant was: “keep the lines straight while marching, both front and sideways, and let your arms swing freely.”

You disobeyed Raja’s commandments at your own risk. The swagger stick he carried was not for mere display.

The commands shouted, and everyone ready, a hush would descend on the schoolyard. Raja would go through a ritual of seeking the permission of the headmaster to commence the parade. With the swagger stick pressed under his left arm, his chest puffed up like a pigeon, he would march to the headmaster, the supreme commander, who stood in the school veranda all this time watching the proceedings.

Raja would salute the headmaster and ask, in military lingo, for permission to commence the parade. Permission granted, he would salute again and march back to his station. While he saluted the headmaster and went through his various moves, all else in the schoolyard was silent, we only heard the sound of the Raja’s boots. He not only preached but also practiced his rule of ‘turning over the earth’.

Finally, when all was set, Raja would call the platoons to attention and shout the marching orders. The band would strike up, and the parade would stream out of the schoolyard, marching three abreast, with the band in the lead, and Fazl e Ilahi at the head. It would enter the bazaar via Kutchery Road, and march down towards the bridge — the only bridge in town — and then turn right, on to Shinkiari Road.

Town folks would come out of their shops and houses to watch the parade. It was quite a pageant — the colorful band in Scottish kilts, the smartly turned-out boys in green uniform marching to the beat, and Raja running up and down the bazaar, blowing his whistle and shouting orders.

At the head of the parade would be Fazal-e-Elahi, the bandmaster, in a kilt and a beret cap with a woolen knob at the top, directing the band with the bandmasters’ staff — that long stick with a large bulbous, silvery knob at the top end.

Illustration by Atiya Nadeem

Women in the neighborhood overlooking Shinkiari Road would come out, standing in the half-open doors and on rooftops, to watch the parade.

Sensing the presence of women among the spectators, Fazal-e-Elahi would develop an extra bounce in his step. He would begin to strut like a peacock, waving the staff flamboyantly, twirling it in his fingers, tossing it into the air, and catching it without missing a beat or a step. It was some spectacle for the otherwise entrainment-starved Mansehra.

One day, when the parade was on its last lap returning to the school, the ‘troops’ a bit relaxed at sensing the end of the parade, a boy veered out of his line just a bit. Raja, ever vigilant, running up and down, noticed the incongruity from a distance. Like an arrow, he darted toward the crooked spot, blowing his whistle, waving his fist, and hurling orders and insult. When he came close to the ‘culprit’, he lunged at him to shake him up a bit. In the process, however, hobnailed boots that he was wearing, Raja skidded on the metaled road and fell to the ground face down, bringing the boy down with him. Both of them soon got up, the boy with minor bruises to his head, but Raja with his two front teeth missing. This was the breaking news that day in the school.

As it turned out, we were never called for war duties, and over the years the enthusiasm for conquering Kashmir also slackened a bit, but our military training gave us memories that we fondly remember even decades later.

Pictures at the top and of the headmaster from the personal collection of Nazir Ahmad Swati

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